You can read the rest here.
Monday, September 27, 2010
Friday, September 24, 2010
Certainly it was big - at 107 feet high, it was the largest statue in the ancient world. A full-grown man couldn't get his arms around one of the fallen thumbs. The Oracle of Delphi advised against rebuilding it, so the pieces remained where they fell, visible all the way from the ships in the harbor, for the next 800 years, until the bronze was finally melted down and used elsewhere. That hasn't stopped artists from depicting it in the most delightful ways ever since.
Wednesday, September 22, 2010
Monday, September 20, 2010
Sargent touched off the firestorm in Paris with his notorious “Portrait of Madame X.” It’s hard to believe that a lady’s evening-gown with a loose shoulder strap could so infuriate the French; in reality, the scandal had more to do with the opulence, the haughty indifference, and the corpse-like pallor of the model. Sargent’s brush had said the one thing that everyone knew but that no one wanted said: high-society Paris wallowed in decadence and malaise.
Across the channel, where society routinely shrugged off Parisian scandals-du-jour, Sargent picked up a string of tame portrait commissions and fretted about how he was going to pay the Paris studio’s rent. Visiting a friend’s enclave of well-to-do Bohemians in the country, Sargent soothed his nerves playing lawn games with his guests and their children amid herb-scented twilights in wild gardens filled with giant roses, lilies, and poppies, all bathed in a soft golden light. At evening gatherings he played popular songs on the piano, including a favorite that year with a lyric that went “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.”
According to Deborah Davis’s wonderful account in Strapless, “this song, the sight of the children playing in the garden, and the memory of Chinese lanterns along the Thames at twilight inspired a painting” that Sargent would only paint from life, working every evening only for the two or three minutes or so when the light was just right.
“Every day for weeks," Davis writes, "just before sunset, Sargent would drop his tennis racket, gather his canvas, paints, and young models, and head for the garden. He would work for [between two and 20] minutes - the brief period of perfect light - to catch the magic transition of late afternoon into evening. When the sun had set, Sargent and his friends would cary the oversized canvas to its resting place to await the next twilight."
Perhaps unwilling to let go of his lifeline to paradise, Sargent took two years to complete the painting, storing the unfinished canvas in his host's barn for the winter. He would call the painting Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.
I think a good part of its magic resides in the stillness of the two girls standing quietly side by side, each absorbed in the process of lighting her lantern with a long wax taper. I've seen my three-year-old and his friends play like that many times - they're "together" but also solitary and apart.
It's the orange light reflected on the faces that I remembered most about this image after not seeing it for a while. Amid the cool colors of the garden, the warm glow of the firelight tints their faces, and we feel as though we're being admitted to the secret world of children. What an antidote to the clamor of fashion and the arrogant demi-mondes of Parisian society! The painting was an instant hit in London (it's still there, by the way, at the Tate), and Sargent's career as a painter was saved.
The John Singer Sargent online gallery has this to say:
“The idea (a purely fanciful one to be sure) was to capture, not the most perfect sunset, but the affect of the most perfect sunset has, in terms of color, shadows and light on a scene. But it was more than that. How about the artificial light of Chinese lanterns at the precise moment of twilight when lanterns and sun are at perfect equilibrium! -- Could he paint that magical transient moment that lasts no more than a couple of minutes most -- capture that most perfect color of mauve when the sun is still flush in the sky and the lanterns glowing equally? Not create the scene from his mind or memory of what it would or should look like, but actually capture it -- could he paint the exquisite beauty between those two minutes?
Of course not. No one could paint in two minutes and even come close to a faithful adaptation no matter how prepared he or she was prior. But what if he painted only for those magical minutes every day? If he was faithful, if he kept true to the principles of Impressionism -- painting only what he saw and not what he thought he saw or wanted to see, if he did it every day for two minutes could he capture lightning in a bottle so to speak?
It was silly, but the idea was hatched in a community of people that weren't constrained by the blinders of convention. These were people who could see things that weren't and ask why not? Sargent was going to do the impossible and they were all going to help!
He started off by using Mrs. Millet's young daughter who was only 5 at the time. They put a wig on her to lighten her hair and then propped the poor thing up as if she were lighting a Chinese lantern. Everyone in the community took an interest, but the demands of maintaining an exact pose every day proved to be too much; so in her place Mrs. Barnard's two girls stepped in of a more appropriate age of seven and eleven.
Edmund Gosse wrote: "The progress of the picture, when once it began to advance, was a matter of excited interest to the whole of our little artist-colony. Everything was used to be placed in readiness, the easel, the canvas, the flowers, the demure little girls in their white dresses, before we began our daily afternoon lawn tennis, in which Sargent took his share. But at the exact moment, which of course came a minute or two earlier each evening, the game was stopped, and the painter was accompanied to the scene of his labors.
Instantly, he took up his place at a distance from the canvas, and at a certain notation of the light ran forward over the lawn with the action of a wag-tail, planting at the same time rapid dabs of paint on the picture, and then retiring again, only with equal suddenness to repeat the wag-tail action. All this occupied but two or three minutes, the light rapidly declining, and then while he left the young ladies to remove his machinery, Sargent would join us again, so long as the twilight permitted, in a last turn at lawn tennis" (Sir Edmund Gosse letter to Charteris , P74-75).
"The seasons went from August till the beginning of November "Sargent would dress the children in white sweaters which came down to their ankles, over which he pulled the dresses that appeared in the picture. He himself would be muffled up like an Artic explorer."
Of course, by then, the flowers had faded and died, so artificial roses were ordered and wired to the withered branches. But who would suspect such time and effort? At its heart Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose is very much a moment only - a rare and perfect one, though with every hallmark of accident and chance. It's as if we too had been invited to enjoy those lovely evenings in that fairytale garden and had happened to glance over a shoulder at the chance moment that distilled its full store of sweetness and spontaneity.
All this, and it is for everyone, and it lasts for all time.
Saturday, September 18, 2010
Friday, September 17, 2010
One shouldn't leave the topic of the Three Graces in painting without a nod to Botticelli, the Renaissance painter whose Birth of Venus and Primavera poetically capture the essence of the age.
Wednesday, September 15, 2010
Nineteenth-century French Symbolist Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) created surreal, dreamlike paintings that draw us into their worlds through their dynamic compositions, elaborate detail, and believable textures. Moreau designed Oedipus and the Sphinx on a tilted, diagonal axis defined by the bodies and Oedipus's staff, from which the sphinx's intricate wings stab toward the sky on the left side balanced by an intricately detailed jar in the lower right corner. The design suggests an "x" that crosses in the painting's center, emphasizing the interlocking of the characters - mankind and the Mystery - in an existential embrace.
Moreau gave us more than fantasies - he gave us worlds in which to become lost, worlds that suggest the hallucinatory, half-substantial outposts of our own.
In his depiction of the poet and the muse (above), Moreau presents Plato's concept of the creative Muse as a genius or "daimon," that is, agent of the gods, responsible for artistic creation. The poet's eyes are closed and the Muse moves her fingers across the instrumental strings. The Renaissance replaced this notion of the "genius" as a spirit that visits the artist from Beyond with the idea that the artist him or herself is the genius, which some are now seeing as a damaging ego-based concept that kills creativity with too much pressure.
"If you never happen to believe in the first place that the most extraordinary aspects of your being [were created by you]," she said, you’d be better off. "Maybe if you just believe that they were on loan to you from some unimaginable source for some exquisite portion of your life, which you pass along when you’re finished to somebody else," it would change everything.
Sunday, September 12, 2010
The great Renaissance painter Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio de Urbino) had youth, polish, charm, intelligence, wit, charisma, good looks, a wealthy family that nurtured his artistic talent, an ability to network and make fast, influential friends, a genius for absorbing and synthesizing the purest classical elements of the great, eccentric Renaissance talents (Michelangelo, Botticelli, Leonardo) and the skill to fuse "the best of the best" into immortal artwork as breathtakingly beautiful and original as any ever produced ... all delivered with an offhand grace that made it look easy. Raphael was a rock star. In 16th century Florence and Rome, he went from lavish court party to lavish court party accompanied by a starstruck entourage of fashionable admirers (read: groupies).
And Raphael loved women (perhaps too much so; making love to a particularly possessive patron's wife apparently got him killed while still in his thirties). The secret power of his many Madonnas (portraits of the mother Mary) lies in how much they are really just beautiful young Italians. A more sophisticated reading of the situation might suggest that Raphael's work reflects the age's duality of earthly and divine beauty, Christian and (Christianized) pagan themes.
Perhaps that's part of the otherworldly charm of his The Three Graces (1504). The theme is pagan (the Graces come from Greek mythology), but the iconography is Christian (the church gave the Graces a pass as they could be made to stand for Christian virtues such as Faith, Hope, and Charity). But the beauty here is all about, on the one hand, the sensuality of the female nude, and on the other, idealized classical balance, as well as the desire to keep all of these balls in the air.
Friday, September 10, 2010
The subject of Rembrandt's unforgettable Philosopher In Meditation (1632) is interior space, both physical and mental. In his smoldering "old master" color palette (ochres, i.e. earth tones), Rembrandt brings us into communion with the essence of thoughtful meditation.
The whorl of the staircase amid the shadows and the golden window-light streaming in and illuminating the darkness where the philosopher sits in solitude, deep in thought, suggest the glowing flame of inward contemplation. The stairs themselves disappear at the top into the dim Portal of the unknown; the philosopher's task is to ascend and to venture ever higher, bringing light to banish the dark.
The painting's design is really comprised of two overlapping spheres (completed and overlapping at the twisting stairs) almost like a yin-yang symbol of difference joined in unity.
In the lower right corner, a servant tends the fire (which on the symbolic level produces the illumination that leads to truth) without which the philosopher would not be able to stay warm. I would associate the servant with the physical world and with the body.
In the (literal and symbolic) "higher sphere" then, the philosopher occupies the idealized position of metphysics and the mind.
Rembrandt's composition seems to imply that both are intertwined with each other, and both are needed.
It could not have been the artist's intention, but I have always seen in the spiral staircase the suggestion of the double helix of the DNA molecule strand. It isn't necessary for my enjoyment or understanding of this work, but the thought does enhance for me the painting's ability to stand for the effort of human intellect to reflect on the interior mysteries of human existence - the province not just of the philosopher but of us all.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
"There is no exquisite beauty," as Poe reminds us, in Ligeia, "without some strangeness in the proportion..."
Abandoned in a field
The parts of your feelings
Are starting to know a quiet
The pure conversion of your
Life into art seems destined
Never to occur
You don't mind
You feel spiritual and alert
As the air must feel
Turning into sky aloft and blue
You feel like
You'll never feel like touching anything or anyone
And then you do